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Israel: A History

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Israel: A History
By Martin Gilbert. (William Morrow, 1998. Pg. 768.) ISBN:0-6881-2362-7

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - October 26, 2001

Martin Gilbert undertook a monumental task when he undertook the writing of a history of modern Israel. Martin Gilbert is an eminent British Historian who has penned over fifty books, among which have been several well-received books on Israel. Gilbert is also the official biographer of Winston Churchill. As such, Gilbert was admirably up to the task of writing this history. Israel: A History is not a dry history book. Rather it is an energetic narrative that not only looks at the 'facts', but also at Israeli culture and the numerous personalities that helped to shape her history. He highlights the efforts of the hard-working pioneers that drained the swamps and established thriving farms just as throughly as he does the politicians that have struggled to establish the country on a sound political footing. In short, this book offers the reader a basic overview of Israeli history, from the evolution of Zionism and Theodor Herzl's efforts to find a Jewish Homeland, all the way through the first fifty years of Israeli Statehood.

Gilbert has taken great care in the writing of this book to present a well-rounded look at the history of modern-day Israel. He presents a compelling narrative that begins with the Belfour Declaration and the events leading up the establishment of the State of Israel, and takes the reader up to the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the State. He takes a hard look at the Intifada and the ongoing conflicts that Israel has had with her Arab neighbors. Gilbert also offers a clear and honest look at the prospects for peace, and the peace process itself, including Camp David and the Oslo Accords. Most importantly, he also outlines the flaws inherent in trying to arrange a peace with a foe who refuses to acknowledge your right to exist.

In this book he not only traces the history of a nation, but the people who inhabited her. To do this he takes a multi faceted approach, tracing the development of Zionism, the founding of Israel, and current trends in modern Middle Eastern history. He chronicles the major political figures who shaped the development of the country including Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Abba Eban and Shimon Peres, to name but a few. He also spotlights others individuals who, although perhaps not as famous, nonetheless played an important role in Israeli history. Interestingly, he spends a great deal of time chronicling the development and founding of numerous Kibbutzim. Many historians overlook the impact that the Kibbutz movement had on the country, both economially and politically, but Gilbert is not one of these. He also chronicles the wars that have shaped the country, such as the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War. Just as important, Gilbert looks at the economic and political aspects of Israel's existence, and the role that Israel plays in international politics.

While this book primarily concentrates on the first fifty years of Israeli statehood, Gilbert also details the events and figures that contributed to the formation of the state, including the pogroms in Russia that helped to foster the growth of Zionism, and the Holocaust which made the establishment of the state so vital as a safe harbor for the survivors. Gilbert also provides a glimpse at the internal workings of the state, including how the numerous immigrants have been integrated into the society and how this amalgam of cultures has shaped the country, both culturally and politically. He also looks at internal issues that are currently facing Israel, such as having to deal with ongoing terrorism and the conflicts that are growing between the ultra orthodox and the secular factions in Israel. Throughout, Gilbert refers to the many interviews that he has conducted with leading Israeli and Arab figures. As well, in writing this book he consulted numerous diaries, memories, and first-person narratives. The inclusion of this information helps to bring the facts to life, and to personalize the events described.

This is phenomenally readable and engaging work, although some readers may find Gilbert's lack of interpretation off-putting. Personally, I liked Gilbert style. He provides the reader with a plethora of facts and enough background from which to interpret the facts. However, he does not dictate that this or that is 'right'. He allows and encourages the reader to come to their own conclusions.

Related Reviews:

The Archaeology of Ancient Judea and Palestine, by Ariel Lewin.
A brief overview of the history and archaeology of ancient Judea and Palestine, written for the general reader.

Israel: Challenges to Identity, Democracy and the State, By Clive Jones and Emma C. Murphy.
This book offers a brief overview of the state of Israeli politics and social cohesiveness, or lack thereof.

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